So Beautiful or So What
You don't realize until the brisk 39-minute running time of So Beautiful or So What runs its course that the world-music rhythms and accents that Paul Simon so famously appropriated for his landmark albums Graceland and its often overlooked — and, frankly, superior — follow-up, The Rhythm of the Saints, have become a natural part of the landscape in the folk icon's harried tales of modern life and, oddly enough, afterlife.
The chattering guitars and percussion on the beautiful Dazzling Blue, the flourishes of kora that color Rewrite, the Afro-pop groove with the Cajun backbeat on The Afterlife — they all dance about like welcome and unobtrusive guests. Such enchanting sounds never call attention to themselves unless Simon commands them to. Mostly, they illuminate 10 wonderfully plain-speaking meditations, the kind we had almost come to think that Simon had forgotten how to conjure.
On The Afterlife, heaven becomes a crowded workingman's hell — or, at least one that seems that way. But the forms to fill out and the lines to wait in are merely inconveniences in obtaining a level of worldly knowledge that mortality is unable, or unwilling, to reveal.
Love Is Eternal Sacred Light ups the ante with a chattering guitar riff that jolts the album out of its largely acoustic comfort zone into an elegantly rocking gospel groove. The showdown outlined is older than time itself: good against evil, darkness against light. "Evil is darkness, sight without sight," Simon sings with a typically whispery tone that nonetheless conveys urgency.
The light is more fleeting, though, on Love and Hard Times, a tale of earthly want ("the light of her beauty was as warm as a summer day") and godly discontent ("these people are slobs here; if we stay there's bound to be a mob scene") against lovely, slight orchestration. It's a work that one might more readily associate with Randy Newman than with the more wistful Simon.
Questions for the Angels brings such spiritual dilemmas to a land that Simon knows well: New York. Images of the Brooklyn Bridge and the homeless in their "cardboard blankets" set the scene. But the tune balances spiritual wonder with earthly cynicism. "Who believes in angels?" Simon sings. "Fools do — fools and pilgrims all over the world." But the graceful, calming acoustic colors surrounding the song suggest otherwise.
But the killer here is the title tune, another electric jump-start that might well stand as the most spiritually compelling four minutes of song Simon has concocted since the chant-style title piece from The Rhythm of the Saints. This newer work is vastly simpler, though. Against an African guitar hook that you can bank on sticking in your brain long after the tune fades, Simon offers a wildly simple credo of a chorus to live by: "Life is what we make of it, 'So beautiful' or 'So what.'"
Ol' Rhymin' Simon might wrestle with godly mysteries, but here on Earth, those words ring with resounding clarity.
Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic